Auckland's traffic and public transport are so often subjects of lamentation that it is a treat to see some improvements. The busway built alongside the Northern Motorway has been given a round of applause by transport consultants for a reduction in the motorway's congestion even as more people are travelling across the Auckland Harbour Bridge.
A report for the Transport Agency has found the busway largely responsible for a 15 per cent increase in passenger numbers crossing the bridge, which is good news not only for bus patronage but for the revival of the central business district. It estimates that 43 per cent of the 7500 bus passengers on the bridge in morning peak periods in 2010 had previously commuted by car.
The findings have encouraged the Labour Party's transport spokesman, Phil Twyford, to press for a busway alongside the Northwestern Motorway too. That would seem worthwhile, though it might compete with the Auckland Council's preference for a rail-based public transport network. A busway would certainly better serve commuters from Mr Twyford's electorate, Te Atatu, and other post-war suburbs in the West. The railway trundles southwest through New Lynn, Glen Eden and Henderson.
Buses, in the council's plans, are to be primarily feeders to the railway, not running on a parallel route. The Northern Busway is to be supplanted by rail to the North Shore in Mayor Len Brown's ultimate vision.
The busway is said to be capable of carrying a railway instead. More likely, the city will always find that it needs the busway for vehicles that can enter and leave it for a greater variety of routes.
The busway is not the only successful traffic engineering project for commuters from the North Shore recently. The Victoria Park tunnel and the extra lanes it has given southbound traffic from the bridge have greatly improved the flow on the motorway on weekday mornings.
Only a fraction of the morning traffic from the Shore heads into the central city; the rest is dispersing to workplaces further south or west or east. The rest now has all four lanes of the Victoria Park flyover, and by happy chance the flyover's former northbound lanes were built on a different level. Hence the traffic now has to be divided before the flyover, the two outer lanes heading south and the inner lanes to the port and the Northwestern Motorway. The early separation is well signed and, despite traffic managers' initial concerns, has worked smoothly.
The Northern Motorway still suffers its share of peak- hour congestion but it would be much worse by now without the busway. It takes buses out of general traffic and allows both the buses and the traffic to move faster. A private car might still beat the bus on most journeys door-to-door, but for commuters within easy reach of a busway station there is no contest.
As any traveller can see, the busway is operating far under its capacity. There is frequently not a bus in sight.
One way of extending its use would be to provide carparking at all stations. The "park and ride" facilities at two of its four stops were filled from opening day but the traffic planners are reluctant to provide more. They want commuters to take a bus all the way, or better, get used to using a feeder route since those will be needed for the trains.
The busway lends itself to a greater variety of public transport solutions. Private shuttles, taxis, cars paying a toll, all might be able to share it under different visions of the city's future.
But for now North Shore is well served by the busway and the removal of the Victoria Park bottleneck. For once, road engineers have caught up with commuters' needs. Now they need to keep pace.